This week I discovered my twin brother. OK not my actual real life twin (the thought of two of me is a little overwhelming) but my Goodreads TBR (to be read) list twin for May. Each month the Goodreads group I am in has an option to set you up with a reading twin and you both scour each others ‘to be read’ lists and come up with something you will read at the same time. It is really good fun, swapping notes with someone half way across the world as you both read the same book. And luckily I was teamed up with someone who was happy to cater to my one-book-a-week whims and read the book in a week with me. As for choosing the book that we read, I looked through my twins list and somewhere in the middle was this, The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood. One message to my twin and one trip to Barbican library later, we were ready to begin.
The Handmaid’s Tale is set in a dystopian world where a totalitarian religious order control the lives of people in the republic of Gilead (the USA.) There are no liberties, particularly for women who cannot own any money or property. And of course like every good dystopian society there are hierarchies. The fat cats at the top who own houses and have servants, the poor men and women who have no servants, the servants themselves and then the men and ‘unwomen’ of the lawless colonies.
This is a society where natural fertility has begun to wane and children are scarce. Enter Offred (not her real name, which, incidentally, we never find out.) Offred’s function is to breed. But there is no partner of her own. She is the vessel through which her employers hope to have a child. And if you’re wondering then, yes sex is involved, but it is so functional in nature that it’s almost a non entity.
Offred lives a regimented life. Everything from her clothes to the food she eats is chosen for her. There is no social interaction with anyone, unless you call the daily walk to the shop with another local handmaid a social activity. Every day they stop by the wall, where traitors to the regime are hung. Their dead bodies reminding everyone what happens to transgressors. But Offred is searching for something else. A ghost of her past. Every day she turns to the wall and hopes that she doesn’t see him. Every day, so far, she had been rewarded. Perhaps it is this very memory of an old life, a time before, that makes Offred careless and suddenly things don’t seem quite so regimented and ordinary any more. Offred begins to take bigger and bigger risks, every moment with the threat of discovery looming over her. Can she get away with living this way? Can anyone?
This was the first time I had read anything by Margaret Atwood and, by jiminy, I hope it won’t be the last. Atwood constructs each scene in her story precisely, deliberately and with a sense of pathos that keeps you utterly hooked. My twin and I kept oohing and aahing over her choice of words and messaging each other things like:
There was a sentence that really struck me. “Such freedom [or maybe it was ‘hope’] now seems almost weightless.” It was this concept of “weightless” that really chimed with me. Like a thing that is so unattainable that it is basically going to fly away from you. You can never hold onto it.
This is just one of my rambling messages to my twin. He didn’t mind – we are siblings after all. Suffice to say, we both enjoyed the book immensely and I’m sure I speak for my twin when I say, that if you haven’t yet read this book, we both wholeheartedly recommend that you do!
Next week I’ll be tackling another classic, Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. If you’re brave enough, I dare you to come back on Monday when I’ll share the gory details!